PENNSYLVANIA — A half-century in the making, Joe Paterno’s impeccable reputation was shattered in a matter of days.
He’s out of a job, and his name has been scraped off the Big Ten title trophy. He’s been taken to task by everyone from the president of the United States to his good friend, Bobby Bowden. Flaws in his program, once barely whispered about, are now an open topic. Although Penn State says it isn’t touching Paterno’s statue outside Beaver Stadium, the fact that someone even asked indicates how far his stock has fallen.
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The admirable graduation rates, the players who were as good off the field as they were on, the financial support for Penn State that had nothing to do with football – all of it has been undone by the one thing Paterno did not do. Go to the police with an abuse allegation.
“This is a scandal large enough that this is going to hang on his legacy,” said Frank Fitzpatrick, a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist and author of two books on Paterno and Penn State, including the new biography, “Pride of the Lions.”
“It’s incredibly sad, I think. That’s not to excuse what he did or say he doesn’t deserve it,” Fitzpatrick added. “It’s still sad for a guy who, I think, really did try. … To see it all end so unceremoniously and so ugly, it’s just hard to take.”
The tumult isn’t over, either. Penn State said Friday that the NCAA will examine the school’s handling of the child sex-abuse scandal involving former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, invoking that dreaded question of “institutional control.”
Later that day, Paterno’s son Scott announced that his father is being treated for lung cancer. The cancer, diagnosed during a follow-up visit last weekend for a bronchial illness, is treatable, and Scott Paterno said doctors are “optimistic he will make a full recovery.”
Even before the news about Paterno’s health, those who admired him had started to view the 84-year-old coach as a tragic figure.
“This is difficult for everybody who knows Joe or anybody who cares about Joe,” former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, a close friend of Paterno’s, said last week. “I feel bad about him and his family. I feel bad about the people who were victimized – very bad about them.”
It’s been two weeks since Sandusky, Paterno’s one-time heir apparent, was accused of sexually abusing eight boys in a 15-year span, setting off a child sex-abuse scandal that stunned Penn State and forever altered the image of major college football’s winningest coach.
Paterno is not the target of any criminal investigation. But Penn State’s board of trustees fired him Nov. 9 because it felt the coach did not go far enough in alerting authorities after then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary told Paterno he witnessed an alleged assault in March 2002.
McQueary, now Penn State’s wide receivers coach, told a grand jury he saw Sandusky raping a boy of about 10 in the showers at the Penn State football building. McQueary went to Paterno, though it is not clear if he described the alleged attack in as graphic detail as he did to the grand jury. Paterno then told athletic director Tim Curley and university vice president Gary Schultz, whose responsibilities included oversight of the campus police.
No one called police.
“Did he make a mistake? Sure, he made a mistake,” former Ohio State coach John Cooper said. “And is he paying the price. Absolutely and rightfully so. … But I’m not going to forget all the good things he did.”
But public opinion quickly turned against the man who for so long had been the moral compass of college athletics, the one person who could always be counted on to do the right thing in a business where so many others have gone wrong.
A day after Paterno was fired, two Pennsylvania senators announced they were rescinding their support for Paterno’s nomination for the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom. The Big Ten announced Monday it was renaming its trophy for the conference title game, saying it would be “inappropriate” to keep Paterno’s name on it.
“The trophy and its namesake are intended to be celebratory and aspirational, not controversial,” Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said.
Much of the anger stems from disillusionment, said psychologist Stan Teitelbaum, author of “Sports Heroes, Fallen Idols.”
Society has a need for heroes, Teitelbaum said, and Paterno fit the bill perfectly with his “Success with Honor” philosophy. He steered Penn State clear of the tawdry scandals that sullied the reputations of high-profile programs such as Ohio State, USC and Miami, and demanded that his players conduct themselves with high character and morals.
He prized education – his name is on a library at Penn State, not an athletic facility – and Penn State could talk about “student-athletes” without drawing snickers. The Nittany Lions had 47 academic All-Americans under Paterno, a national-best 15 in the past five years alone. Penn State’s graduation rate consistently ranks among the best in the Big Ten; in 2010, its 84 percent rate trailed only Northwestern’s 95.
When Paterno was revealed as flawed – as human – people who had invested so much faith in him felt betrayed, Teitelbaum said.
“Joe Paterno was perceived as a very benign father figure. Father figures are supposed to protect us from the dangers of the world,” Teitelbaum said. “As more and more things came out, people became more and more disappointed and disappointment turns to anger. He was supposed to have spared us.”
There is an element of schadenfreude in Paterno’s humbling, too.
Paterno was proud of being able to claim the moral high ground and made no attempt to hide it. He once said he wouldn’t retire because he didn’t want to leave coaching to the Jackie Sherrills and Barry Switzers of the world.
Switzer won three national titles at Oklahoma, but his Sooners were college football’s renegades. Oklahoma was slapped with three years’ probation for major recruiting violations, and five players were arrested on felony charges before Switzer stepped down in June 1989. Sherrill had brushes with the NCAA at both Texas A&M and Mississippi State.
“There were a lot of people who felt Joe was sanctimonious and holier than thou and pious when there wasn’t any reason to be,” Fitzpatrick said. “In that sense, that attitude set him up for a fall like this. People aren’t cheerful that Joe’s going through something like this but some are thinking, `See, I told you. Even at mighty blessed Penn State.’
“But I don’t think anyone expected it going wrong to this extent.”